Intel admits defeat, loses its joie de Viiv

With Intel’s recent announcement that it will be “de-emphasising” the two year old Viiv brand the holy grail of vendor-controlled home media has slipped further from questing fingers.

In the case of Viiv Intel was making a rather clever bid to sneak DRM in on the back of a Centrino-style hardware base. The basic concept of Viiv – at least the most publicised aspect – was to provide a well-defined hardware platform aimed at the home media server market as Centrino did for the laptop market.

This did have certain benefits for both OEMs and customers – if a system is branded “Viiv-ready” then as an OEM you know what platform you’re working towards and as a customer you have a solid idea of what you’re buying.

However Intel also sought to use Viiv as a staging platform for digital content providers to encrypt their content and only have it played back on Viiv systems by means of the embedded TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip which was part and parcel of the Viiv branding.

Luckily although Intel had agreements from companies like TiVo Virgin Records and DirecTV from its release Viiv was not locked into only playing encrypted content and although the TPM chip was part of all Viiv systems it wasn’t explicitly relying on it to function. Of course releasing a product which was only capable of playing encrypted content would have sunk Viiv as a brand before it even got off the ground.

The failure of Viiv is probably to be found with its dependence on Microsoft Windows XP MCE 2005 and Vista Home Premium/Ultimate. Although these operating systems have been the basis of all PC-based commercial home media systems sold the market remains a stubbornly limited one. This is mainly due to two factors. Firstly media computers (whether PC-based or otherwise) require more technical expertise by their very nature and this is meant that the more expensive HTPCs have struggled in the general consumer market against comparatively cheaper and far more user-friendly media players like the MediaGate MG-350HD or TviX M-4130SH and even Microsoft’s own Xbox 360. Secondly as both operating systems use a standard Windows driver base they work on practically any hardware platform – including those which fall well short of Viiv’s specifications. This has spawned a worldwide community of HTPC enthusiasts who are far more interested in building their own custom machines rather than purchasing off-the-shelf branded systems – especially those with potential DRM lurking under the surface.

By comparison AMD’s competitor product – AMD Live! – sought the support of content providers via a software-based delivery system rather than relying on embedded technology to protect content. The AMD Live! Entertainment Suite also features many freely-available packages like media streaming and online backup – the only requirement is an AMD Live!-ready system which is essentially any system with a relatively recent AMD dual-core CPU. It’s worth noting that all the available packages are completely optional – you still have an AMD Live! system without them. There are AMD Live! solutions for notebooks as well as desktops and the most recent innovation is the HP MediaSmart system built on Windows Home Server and supported by AMD Live! So although AMD Live! is also largely dependent on Microsoft Windows it seems to have avoided Intel’s mistakes with Viiv by making the platform much more accessible to end-users as well as OEMs and looks set to continue strongly in the HTPC market.

Intel plans to focus its attention now on MIDs – Mobile Internet Devices. This could work for them but with the popularity of devices like Apple’s iPhone and other emergent devices like Google-powered mobiles there’s a distinct possibility that Intel has effectively missed its opportunity to be a defining force in the digital media market.